Judiciary Committee Leaders Float Copyright Office Autonomy

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar

Dec. 8 — House Judiciary Committee leaders are to split the Copyright Office from the Library of Congress, as part of an initial policy proposal stemming from a committee review of copyright law.

The committee’s chairman and top Democrat—Reps. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) also proposed creating a small claims tribunal within the Copyright Office and an online, searchable database of copyright ownership claims, in a statement released Dec. 8.

Representatives of copyright owners and public interest advocates both expressed hope that the proposal would result in giving the agency the resources to modernize its operations, particularly its IT systems.

However, some public interest advocates worried that legislation might result in removing oversight from the agency and making it vulnerable to lobbyists from large content industries.

Goodlatte, Conyers Post YouTube Video

Goodlatte and Conyers said they were seeking written comments on the proposal for Copyright Office autonomy. Legislation would granting the Copyright Office “autonomy” with respect to its budget and its technology.

This statement comes two months after the controversial removal of Maria A. Pallante as head of the agency by the new librarian of Congress, Carla D. Hayden.

The lawmakers said their proposal is the first of multiple proposals resulting from the committee’s multi-year review of federal copyright law. They specifically mentioned music licensing as a subject for a future policy release. Goodlatte and Conyers also posted a YouTube video announcing their proposal.

“This is just the beginning of this stage of the copyright review,” Goodlatte said in the video. He promised further proposals on music licensing and other issues in the future.

Conyers asked for input from “interested parties” to help the committee draft legislation addressing the announced policy proposals.

Broad Support for Copyright Office Modernization

Keith Kupferschmid of the Copyright Alliance, an association that represents creators, said that he believed that Copyright Office modernization was a logical place for the Judiciary Committee to start.

“There’s tremendous support,” Kupferschmid told Bloomberg BNA. “I know copyright issues can be very controversial and get stuck, because there’s so many viewpoints. But modernization of the Copyright Office is not one of those.”

Ryan Clough of public interest advocacy group Public Knowledge said that his organization was in favor of efforts to modernize the Copyright Office and ensure that it has the resources to upgrade its IT systems.

However, he said, he would be concerned if any eventual legislation “freed the register of copyrights from any day-to-day supervision by any other government official.”

Separation From Oversight Creates Concern

Removing the Copyright Office from the Library of Congress entirely would make it vulnerable to influence from content industry lobbyists, according to Aram Sinnreich, a communications professor at American University in Washington, who has written extensively on copyright issues.

“What it really comes down to is as long as the Copyright Office is housed inside the Library of Congress then it is insulated to some degree from lobbyists who seek to erase the public interest dimension of the law,” Sinnreich told Bloomberg BNA.

Stays Under Congressional Control

The proposal specifies that the Copyright Office will remain within the legislative branch. That would preclude options such as merging it with the Patent and Trademark Office or making it an independent commission-run agency such as the Federal Communications Commission.

However, Christine Haight Farley, a law professor at American University, Washington, said that combining the Copyright Office and the PTO would make it “less open to industry capture” while also giving it budgetary and technological resources.

Jonathan Band, a copyright lawyer based in Washington, said that the small claims tribunal part of the proposal is not likely to make much headway.

“I think no one will show up to the party,” Band told Bloomberg BNA. “Congress and the Copyright Office would spend a lot of time and effort crafting legislation, and few, if any, defendants will agree to the tribunal’s jurisdiction. If parties can’t resolve low value disputes amicably, they won’t submit to a small claims tribunal.”

Goodlatte and Conyers also proposed making the register of copyrights subject to “the same nomination and consent process as other senior government officials.” In response, the Library Copyright Alliance urged that the librarian of Congress not wait for congressional action before naming Pallante’s successor.

Currently, the librarian of Congress has complete authority to appoint the register.

Several Proposals Combined in Release

Goodlatte and Conyers’s proposal also includes:

  •  Setting a 10-year term limit for the register of copyrights. Legislation enacted in 2015 created a 10-year term limit for the librarian of Congress.
  •  Creating the positions of chief economist, chief technologist and deputy register in the Copyright Office.
  •  Creating “permanent and ad-hoc advisory committees to advise the Register on critical issues.” Similar advisory committees are associated with the Patent and Trademark Office.
  •  Pushing for a “quick rollout” of the Copyright Office’s technology improvement plan, and giving the head of the agency the autonomy to make IT decisions, including whether or not to use the Library of Congress’s datacenter.
Copyright Office independence and creation of a small claims tribunal were the subject of legislation introduced in the current Congress, but Goodlatte and Conyers hadn’t signed on to those bills.

The top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee—Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.)—released a statement Dec. 8 supporting the ideas of Copyright Office modernization and independence.

The Library of Congress issued a statement stating that it agreed with the idea of Copyright Office modernization and that it would work with Congress to pursue that goal.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anandashankar Mazumdar in Washington at AMazumdar@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Wilczek at mwilczek@bna.com

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